Without mayors, residents of Leeds and Birmingham have no say over who leads their city

Stranger danger: a leaflet distributed during Leeds' 2012 referendum. Image: Tom Forth.

Back in 2012, I was trying to convince anyone who’d listen that we should have an elected mayor in Leeds. The proposal was far from perfect but it seemed like an improvement on the status quo. I’d seen Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson representing London’s interests on the national stage, and I wanted some of the same for my city.

Instead of electing a local councillor to collect bins, fix swings, and fill grit boxes, I wanted to elect a mayor to tackle poverty, improve schools, and fix the city’s transport. At the very least I hoped that the position might become important enough to merit a page on Wikipedia (both Leeds’ current and previous council leaders are conspicuous by their absence).

The people of Leeds disagreed. They rejected the proposed elected mayor in 2012 in a referendum. Every other big city except Bristol did the same. Liverpool only got its mayor by not holding a public vote on it.

“Give Clegg a kicking” and “Don’t let London tell us what to do” were sentiments sold hard by the local Labour party. They were decent attack lines, but I don’t think that they were decisive. What actually won the debate for “No” was the line that “the current system is more democratic”. I heard it over and over again from every party in Leeds.


My friends in other cities say it was the same where they lived, and it was a really hard argument to counter. How could electing a distant mayor every five years be more democratic than electing a local councillor to represent your specific local views every year? More votes for more politicians certainly feels like more democracy.

Fast forward to today, and once again the loudest argument I’m hearing against the new type of mayors proposed for English city regions is, “The current system is more democratic”. Yet in the two cities where I spend most of my time, Leeds and Birmingham, it’s now very obvious that this isn’t the case.

Judith Blake is probably an excellent politician and a fine representative of her ward, but she was selected to lead Leeds City Council only after this year’s elections were finished. That makes her even less democratically elected as a leader than Gordon Brown. At least we all knew that he was coming after Blair.

Democracy is similarly absent in Birmingham. The long-serving leader Sir Albert Bore has stepped down, and his replacement will now be selected by the same Labour councillors who are rumoured to have pushed him out. The people of Birmingham will not get a say.

The political system we chose to retain is about to select leaders of two of England’s largest cities without consulting the nearly 2m people who they will lead. I’d love to see the people who argued that “the current system is more democratic” than directly-elected mayors to change their minds. If not, then I hope that they are at least a little embarrassed.

Tom Forth runs a software company called imactivate and is an associate at ODILeeds. He tweets as @thomasforth

 
 
 
 

CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit citymonitor.ai going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

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Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.